If you read The Help by Kathryn Stockett and want to see the bigger picture, this book is a must read. The Warmth of Other Suns is rich in detail and steeped in the flavors, both good and bad, of America in the first half of the 20th Century.
Decades after the Civil War, blacks in the American South were still living in virtual slavery through poverty, abuse, and discrimination. From the early 1900s until the 1960s, over six million southern blacks left the Jim Crow South and migrated to the North and West seeking a better life. What drove them? How did they hear about those other suns? How did they adapt to a different cultural climate? What were their stories? Isabel Wilkerson does an excellent job of answering those questions and telling their stories. After conducting hundreds of interviews, looking at thousands of public records, and reading the newspapers of the North and the South, Ms. Wilkerson challenges many of the preconceived beliefs about that period of United States history. Her detailed research won her the Pulitzer Prize but this is not just a lengthy tome on the changing demographics of America. The author interweaves those details with the lives of three main characters and anecdotes from that era. This could be the Gone With The Wind of the 20th Century with a black perspective.
I liked the way that the author wrote in vivid detail what were commonplace experiences for blacks that I will never know. Standing under a hot Southern sun picking cotton all day for pennies because the law forbade you any other work. Being heckled and threatened by a rioting mob because your family had dared to rent an apartment in a white neighborhood. Watching a young black man stoned until he drowned because he had drifted across an invisible segregation line at a Chicago beach. Even though they had migrated to a different place did not mean their lives were automatically better. Many of the experiences Ms. Wilkerson describes were marked with heartbreak but ultimately this “Great Migration” changed our nation. It changed the black families that lived it. It changed the white families that witnessed it. It changed our politics, our schools, our neighborhoods, and hopefully our hearts and minds. This book is one that stayed with me long after I put it down.